We boxed the swarm right off the roof of the condo building; it came off the tree to the right,  four storeys up from the street. Easy-peasy! Photo: Sharon Lee

Two colonies; from swarm heaven to flying hell

It is a spectacular thing to chase a massive swarm as it moves straight down the middle of a major street, all while people go about their business, unaware of what is going on overhead.

Recovering that swarm from the top of a four-storey tree, as its branches, bent heavy with bees, bend over the roof of a condo building, makes it all the more interesting.

That’s what I, my daughter Sharon and a beekeeper friend found ourselves doing the other day; retrieving a late afternoon swarm under conditions that would otherwise have meant abject failure. More about that in a minute.

The day ended, however, with the retrieval of another colony – this one an actual hive – from a residential yard where it had caused conflicts with some neighbours after having swarmed no less than three times.

What made this second colony a challenge was that even in dark it was by far the most aggressive hive I’ve encountered; it was so hot that Amanda and I were stung at least 16 times between the two of us just trying to get the bottom closed for transport.

Let me recount how this two-colony day unfolded.

A friend has two hives in the Pandora Park community gardens in Vancouver. She has weathered at least one swarm every year and despairs of ever getting a honey harvest. We’ve helped her in the past in swarm prevention, but these are big, populous hives and they just seem to always want to take off.

Swarm in elm tree in Pandora Park. Photo: Sharon Lee

Swarm in elm tree in Pandora Park. Photo: Sharon Lee

This time one of the hives issued perhaps the biggest swarm I’ve ever seen; a full seven pounds of bees settled with their old queen on the upper branches of a magnificent old park Elm just above their old home. Well out of reach, and so big that in two clusters it could be seen across the entire park. It appeared to be a goner.  But about 30 minutes later it took off, and in a cyclonic fashion moved east through the park and across Nanaimo Street.

We followed it, walking slowly beneath this flurry of roaring wings. Occasionally a bee would land on my arm or face, and would then take off again and join her mates.  Sharon took photos and videos, and we’ll post them a little later.

We tracked this swarm – which did not show as a comet but literally like a swirling hurricane of bees crossing each other – across Nanaimo, over a corner building and up the middle of East Hastings Street.  Right over the heads of two Chinese women carrying groceries, so engaged in their own conversation they never even looked up to see what the roar above them was.

The swarm stayed above the trolley wires, and for two blocks moved directly up the middle of one of the city’s busiest streets. Eventually it moved to a tall tree next to the condo building, and the bees started to settle on the branches just above the building’s parapet.

Throughout the journey people would stop us and ask us what this was – “are these wasps?”, “are they dangerous?”, “where are they going?” and the like – but few seemed to worry. Most people were just surprised and a  few were happy, they said, to see them. People inherently seemed to understand that these weren’t going to hurt them.

We contacted the building’s property manager, who put us in touch with the strata council president, who generously led us up to the roof-top garden where the bees seemed headed for. I hopped a pony wall separating the garden from the rest of the roof, and walked over to where the swarm was. I reached up, bent the branches into my waiting swarm box and gently shook the mass.

There were so many bees that they spilled over the sides and on to the roof. I cut holes in the side of the box and what a beautiful sight it was to see the bees march up the box and head inside to join the queen.

Within 45 minutes the show was over; the box was packed to capacity and what we couldn’t fit in there we placed in a nuc box. We carefully taped everything shut and went down the back stairs to our waiting truck.

Within an hour I had transferred them to a waiting hive and wax comb at home. They are exceedingly gentle and are now preoccupied with building out the comb.

Now, contrast that pleasant experience with flying hell later that night.

The second hive had to be removed from an East Vancouver home because of conflicts with the neighbours. It had swarmed several times, and the neighbours are of the variety that, even though the owner was in compliance with Vancouver’s bee guidelines, had raised such a stink with the local bee inspector that it was easier to just remove the hive. There had been a lot of harassing calls, I gather, to the point that the beekeeper simply asked us to take the hive from him. (The city, progressive about the keeping of bees, has a helpful page here. If you live elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, refer to our resources page for a list of current bee bylaws. )

The box was well out of sight behind a magnificent old Copper Beech and did not appear to be a stinging problem for the neighbourhood; it was just that the neighbours had been freaked out about seeing a swarm. But our experience that night also showed us this hive didn’t want to be messed with anyway.

We showed up at dark and proceeded to close off the bottom access; the bees woke and came out with such ferocity that I am surprised the neighbours didn’t wake to see these ghostly white forms dancing down the lane trying to get clear of the little stinkers.

They were so aggressive that I had to put on gloves – something I try to eschew as a way of reminding myself to be gentle with my livestock. Not even smoke would settle the little perishers down, and they nailed me at least a dozen times on my hands, through my suit and in any place flesh was exposed.

Half an hour later we wrestled the hive on to the back of the truck and were on our way to the farm. We placed the hive at the back of the apiary in a location that most people won’t cross in front of. Until I can get in during daylight and determine if this is a truly hot hive – and not just one that doesn’t like being woken at night – I don’t want folks getting an unintended dose of apitherapy!

One day, two colonies, two entirely different experiences. I guess that’s the variety of life in beekeeping.

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